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The Dictator’s Dilemma

Sina Odugbemi's picture

In an influential article in Foreign Affairs entitled ‘The Political Power of Social Media’, published in January 2011, Clay Shirky described the dictator’s dilemma, also called the conservative dilemma, as follows:
 

The dilemma is created by new media that increase public access to speech or assembly; with the spread of such media, whether photocopiers or Web browsers, a state accustomed to having a monopoly of public speech finds itself called to account for anomalies between its view of events and the public’s. The two responses to the conservative dilemma are censorship and propaganda. But neither of these is as effective as the enforced silence of citizens. The state will censor critics or produce propaganda as it needs to, but both of those actions have higher costs than simply not having any critics to silence or reply to in the first place. But if a government were to shut down Internet access or ban cellphones, it would risk radicalizing otherwise pro-regime citizens or harming the economy.

Many dictatorial or authoritarian regimes are sitting right on the butt-hurting horns of that dilemma right now. What is driving it is, of course, the explosive growth in mobile technology worldwide, what Michael Saylor, in a book of that title, calls The Mobile Wave. Cell phones, smart phones and internet access are driving into more and more corners of the world. For a current run-down of the mind-boggling statistics please see this Pew Research Report: ‘Emerging Nations Embrace Internet, Mobile Technology’. And for current reporting on how the dictator’s dilemma is playing out in some contexts please see ‘How Emerging Markets’ Internet Policies Are Undermining Their Economic Recovery’ from Forbes.

YouThink! Year in Review

Ravi Kumar's picture
I'm amazed by how young people around the world are innovating despite the numerous challenges they face. Their participation in the fight against poverty is crucial. At the World Bank, we know we can't end extreme poverty by 2030 without empowering youth.

Bits and Atoms: Limited Statehood and Digital Technology

CGCS's picture
Steven Livingston, a Professor of Media and Public Affairs and International Affairs at George Washington University, discusses his upcoming book Bits and Atoms: Information and Communication Technology in Areas of Limited Statehood.
 

Much of the development, governance and more general international affairs literatures speak of failed or fragile states when describing a breakdown of governance capacity.[1] In Bits and Atoms: Information and Communication Technology in Areas of Limited Statehood Gregor Walter-Drop of the Freie Universität Berlin and I use a different formulation. We provide a more nuanced conceptual foundation for thinking about the nature of statehood and how digital technologies might serve to ameliorate the effects of what we call limited statehood. Following Max Weber, statehood is characterized by a monopoly on the means of violence, the ability to make and impose binding rules, and by the effective provisioning of public goods. An area of limited statehood is defined by the absence of some or all of these qualities.

As Thomas Risse and his colleagues have argued, limited statehood has at least three manifestations. It can be territorial, limited to a particular geographical space within the larger context of the sovereign borders of an otherwise consolidated state. The urban slums of Nairobi, Lagos, or Rio are territorial areas of limited statehood, confined spaces where basic public goods – clear water, sanitation, security, and infrastructure such as roads and sidewalks — are missing. Limited statehood can also be sectoral, limited to specific policy areas where the governance capacity of the state falls short. And it can be temporal, where an otherwise fully consolidated state suffers a temporary loss of governance capacity. Disasters in this respect constitute a governance stress test, measuring the governance capacity of state institutions. When Typhoon Haiyan swept through the Philippines in November, destroying everything in its path, the Philippines government was overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge found in restoring order and providing for basic public services. In much the same way, the Japanese government was overwhelmed by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. The tsunami added to the burden when it caused level 7+ meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Following Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans fits this category “in the sense that U.S. authorities were unable to enforce decisions and to uphold the monopoly over the means of violence for a short period of time.”[2] These examples make clear that even fully consolidated states such as Japan and the United States can experience periods of limited statehood.